“It’s not here, Master.”
“Damn it, you fools! It must be here.”
They widened their search and Para held her breath as she clutched tighter to Phillip, hearing the men’s footsteps draw closer with each passing moment. Her breath caught in her throat, tears burning a path of terror down her flaming cheeks. At any instant she expected to feel a moment of excruciating pain and then the oblivion of death.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered into Phillip’s neck.
“I’ll protect you, Par. When I give you the signal, run as fast as you can to the grove.”
She shook her head. “Don’t leave me alone.”
“Don’t be a stupid girl and do what I say—Nefa take him. He’s looking this way…. I think he’s seen us. Damn it. Get ready.”
“You’ll be fine. Just run as fast as you can, as if Nefa himself were on your ass. Promise?”
Para reluctantly inclined her head, pulling herself back from her clutch of her friend to face the grove, legs and arms trembling as she worried her lower lip until she tasted blood.
“Wait.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her down, so close she could smell the mixture of soil and grass. She covered her nose and mouth to keep from sneezing. “Look.”
Para forced her eyes from Phillip’s sweating face to the man dressed in brown and green–a hunter–who spoke with the man in black with the red, fingerless gloves.
“Are you certain?” the man in black asked. The slowness of his speech belied a suspicious nature. Para had heard Phillip ask questions like that plenty of times.
“Quite.” The hunter crouched and motioned to the tracks in the grass around them.
He was a hunter! “Phillip, he knows we’re here! He’s a hunter, and he can read trail sign better than anyone. My dad says so!”
“Be quiet, you fool girl, or they really will know we’re here.” He squashed her down into the grass, half on top of her to keep her still.
Para fought back the terror and forced her ears to hear what the hunter told the man in black.
“Here. He fell from his horse. The blood. Here and here? It appears he may have come upon a child, two, in actuality, see the compacted grass around? But they were scared off, likely at our approach, and made off toward Albervalley, the same as our luckless rider, although by a slightly different route. We will very likely overtake them on the way. But only should we leave now.”
The man in black caressed his dark face with his long, snakelike fingers, his glance flicking toward the brush nearly sending Para into hysterics. If not for the strong grip of Phillip’s hand on her shoulder, she would have fallen to literal pieces. Then the man barked orders and mounted, casting the hunter another intense examination before shifting his great, gray beast to the south.
The hunter stood with slow intensity, wiping the dirt and soil from his hands before calling his mount with a series of clicks. The roan bobbed its head and nudged the hunter’s shoulder, almost as if it sought an answer to a silent question. The hunter said nothing, and both Phillip and Para held their breath as he pulled himself into the saddle and then shifted his focus to their exact position for an agonizingly long moment.
Then he galloped after the others, the thunder of the hooves echoing Para’s heartbeat. She covered her face and wailed, sobs of terror racking her shoulders occasionally jostled by Phillip’s urgings to her feet.
“Par! We’ve got to get back and warn the others,” he insisted, tugging her to her feet.
Nodding, sobbing, and clutching at his hand the two ran to the rhythm of pounding hooves and hearts toward home. The hunter said they ran toward Albervalley. Maybe they would miss home? Maybe they wouldn’t find Donn? The thought of her brother’s face on that of the man with the arrows and burns tripped her feet and sent her sprawling, blood now trickling from her nose.
“Phillip, what if they find Donn?”
“They won’t. Now come on.” He pulled, almost dragged, her to her feet and plunged headlong forward, Para blindly following and unable to see through her tears.
She swiped a sleeve across her face, trying so desperately to be as brave as Phillip. As tough as Donn. As strong as her mother. Phillip was right, they had to hurry. They had to warn the others. Tell the constable what had happened. And Lord Henry! They had to get to the castle. Para blinked down at her free hand, her white-knuckled fingers clutching the blood smeared frosted glass and recalling the hoarse pleading of the man.
They stumbled to a stop, unable to keep their footing at the sudden and cataclysmic shaking of the ground beneath their feet. The two stared, wide-eyed, at the ground, fully expecting the earth to open up and swallow them. A roar shuddered the silence, and Phillip and Para stared toward the horizon and the direction of their little hamlet. Pillars of smoke twisted the sky, crimson and orange a tainted portrait of flame and blood.
Para yanked free and sprinted forward, screeching in panicked oblivion to the consequences. Then she found herself tumbling, dragged sobbing and kicking to a smoldering portion of wall of one of the hamlet’s many storage barns.
“Stupid girl,” Phillip hissed, his grimy hand cupped over her mouth to stifle her screams. “Do you want to die?”
She clapped her hands over her ears, desperately trying to muffle the wails of terror and screams of death that rent the late morning air just a few feet beyond their hiding place. “Mamma, no….”
If not for Phillip’s tight grip she would have willingly run into the flames and mayhem just so she didn’t have to visualize her father and mother’s deaths. Her friends. Phillip’s mom with the sad smile. The blacksmith who always missed the spittoon and hit the neighbor’s white cat when he thought they weren’t looking. Why would someone do something like this? Burn a helpless village? It made no sense. Even though her fingers tightened around the vial, it still made no sense.
Para slumped back against the wall, hiding her face under her arms as she cried herself to sleep and blissful oblivion.
To be continued. For BACK EPISODES, navigate to the “book page” here: The Soul Cycle: Para.
This series is now being serialized on JukePop Serials, a free site. You can follow updates from any browser, or use their free app and receive updates in real-time. Also, each time you read to the next episode on JukePop, this story will receive a “+vote” and support me as a JukePop Serial author.
Episodes on JukePop have been further refined and edited from these rough versions.
Author’s Note: The Soul Cycle started way back in November 2008 (for my first National Novel Writing Month venture) when I took one of my husband’s adventure module outlines–complete with maps and descriptions–and wrote life into Para and Mun, a pair of adventurers who had been traveling together for more than three years. The title: To Save A Soul.
The following year I wrote the continuation of that adventure, Silver and Iron, although it remains unfinished, and continued to brainstorm further adventures for my beloved Para and Mun. For the 2012 NaNoWriMo adventure, I wrote a prequel explaining Para Sedi and all her idiosyncrasies. I even began outlining Mun’s introductory novel, which would also include how he and Para first met.
The subject of this weekly serial will be Para & Mun’s story from their utter beginning.